Seeds of Culinary Change at The Clubs at Houston Oaks

Jeffrey Baker

Executive Chef Jeffrey Baker is driving a new culinary movement at The Clubs at Houston Oaks.

When Jeffrey Baker, Executive Chef of The Clubs at Houston Oaks (Hockley, Texas), needs a minute to himself, he goes to the club’s garden. It’s quiet there, despite a soft buzzing from ten honeybee hives, and he is reminded of what’s possible when the right owners, an outstanding culinary team and a unique piece of property come together for a common purpose.

He leaves the garden inspired. Soon the hot peppers that Master Gardener Jeannine Hopkins has been nurturing organically from seeds will be ready for harvest, and Baker will begin the next batch of “Double Dog Dare Ya” hot sauce before tackling challenges that include a new set of seasonal menus, renovation updates for the club’s unique Bunker venue, and member service goals.

“I live and breathe the possibilities this club has to offer,” says Baker. “It’s truly a unique place that straddles private club and resort. My job description doesn’t say anything about starting a garden, managing honeybees, or creating hot sauce. But those are the difference-makers.”

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Since Baker came on board four years ago, Houston Oaks has successfully redefined its food-and-beverage program, elevated the caliber of its team and made bigger plans for the future.

Baker, who has led the charge, shares an ambitious vision with the club’s owners and management team, which includes Robert J. Gusella, CCM, CCE, Chief Executive Officer/General Manager and Travis Dale, CEC, CCM, AAC, Assistant General Manager.

As a result, a culinary revolution is well underway.

The Clubs at Houston Oaks At a Glance

Location: Hockley, Texas
Members: 440
Annual F&B Revenue: $3M
A la carte/Banquet Mix: 40/60
Food Cost: 46%
Beverage Cost: 28%
Annual Golf Rounds: 15,000
F&B Minimum: $450/quarter
Dining Spaces (and Capacities): Main dining room (110+60 patio)
Park House (30)
Gun Club (50)
Sunset Hill (Pool, 40)
Men’s Locker Room (45)
Ladies Locker Room (30)
Bunker & Wine Cave (150)
Wedge (Grab-and-Go)
Kitchens and Sizes:
2,500 Sq. Ft. (Main)
1,000 Sq. Ft. (Gun Club)
3,000 Sq. Ft. (Bunker)
700 Sq. Ft. (Mobile)
No. of BOH Employees: 16
No. of FOH employees: 26
Clubhouse Size: 40,000 Sq. Ft.
Banquet Capacity: 650

Under Cover

Houston Oaks’ history is nothing short of fascinating. First developed by the Tenneco Oil and Gas Company, it served as the company’s worldwide gas-control facility and recreational getaway through the 1980s.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Tenneco built an extensive underground bunker facility, from which it maintained and monitored the company’s global gas operations. The bunker was also used by The El Paso Corporation, which owned the property in the 1990s.

Still intact, the bunker is located near Houston Oaks’ administrative buildings.

Recently, the current owners renovated an old Tenneco administration building that now serves as a boutique hotel for members and guests. The underground bunker left behind by Tenneco was transformed into Bunker 55, a premier Wine Cave and secure, temperature-controlled storage facility that hosts wine lockers, meeting spaces and a tasting lounge (see photos, above).

A brand-new, 3,000-sq. ft. kitchen was also created as part of the Bunker renovation and Baker, who was heavily involved in its design as well as the selection of equipment, plans to use this kitchen as a commissary for many of the products the club mass-produces.

“When we make an equipment purchase, we buy the best and highest-quality pieces available,” says Baker. “We’re diligent about preventive maintenance.”

Every Sunday and Monday, Baker and his team clean kitchens from top to bottom, breaking down the six-tops and scrubbing every nook and cranny. Because, as Baker puts it, if you start with the best and take care of it, you’ll only ever need the best.

The underground Bunker 55 has been renovated into a premier Wine Cave with wine lockers, meeting space, and lounge. It’s also home to a new 3,000-sq. ft. kitchen that will eventually serve as a commissary.

“One of our biggest ongoing challenges is that we’re in a continuous state of development,” says Gusella, who has been with the club since November. “But our goal is to provide consistency to our members across the board.

“We have to have a ‘resort’ mindset, meaning the french fries in the main dining room taste exactly the same as they would at the pool or at the gun club,” he continues. ”The same goes for the chicken salad or the corn and crab chowder. Our members expect this. As we continue to grow, that goal will be at the top of our priority list.”

Believing in Tomorrow

Before Baker arrived at Houston Oaks, the menus had grown stagnant and shortcuts were being taken at the expense of quality. There was also an immense amount of overtime being logged—upwards of 300 hours every two weeks—which indicated the club was severely understaffed.

Baker knew the operation needed to be reorganized, inside and out. (In fact, while doing inventory in the early days, he found 46 cans of jalapeños scattered throughout the kitchen.)

Fortunately—having cut his teeth with a series of old-school European chefs—he was up to the challenge. He started three days before Mother’s Day with no menu, four cooks and 300 reservations on the books. “I told the GM, as long as you have the chairs for them, I’ll take care of the rest,” he says.

Jeffrey Baker
Executive Sous Chef Nick Zaputil (top, left) is able to “read [Baker’s] mind” when they work together, which leads to incredible dishes featuring home-grown ingredients.

And he did. Mother’s Day that year was a success and the entire staff pitched in to get the job done.

“I used to be the kind of chef who would bust plates against walls,” says Baker. “But I’ve learned how ineffective that approach is. Soon after I started, I sat down and evaluated each staff member on an individual basis. I got to know them as people, so I could learn how to best maximize their production and personal growth.”

Baker’s philosophy is simple: Good doesn’t happen by itself. It takes work, a strong team and leadership. As he interviewed potential applicants, he focused on those three characteristics, and that’s how Nick Zaputil became Executive Sous Chef.

“He reads my mind and follows my lead,” says Baker. “He has a real mature approach to the business that is hard to find. He’s smart, and his work ethnic is unmatched.”

To attract top talent like Zaputil, Baker relies on the support of Dale and Gusella, as well as the faith of Houston Oaks’ owners.

As he was staffing up early on, he explained that to attract cooks of a certain caliber, the club would need to raise the base pay. Now, Houston Oaks pays higher than the industry average and has had very little turnover. In fact, in four years, Baker has only lost four people to new opportunities.

“I’d rather take someone raw with aptitude and willingness than someone with an good resume,” says Baker. “I can teach anyone how to cook. But I can’t teach them passion or dedication. Plus, knowledge is worthless unless you give it away, and we’re only going to be as strong as our weakest cook.”

Baker’s current team is creative and refuses to settle for anything less than the best. He also mentors them so they continue to grow and learn.

A New Row to Hoe

Once Baker had his team in place and organized the back of the house, he began retooling menus to be more seasonally driven. “It was a three-year evolution, and it completely changed the dining culture,” he says. “Our members gained a new sense of appreciation for our food, and our cover counts have grown.”

The culinary team utilizes every aspect of the farm throughout all seven dining locations as well as in canned and preserved products available for purchase.

He then set his sights on a plot of land about a half-mile from the main clubhouse that had once been a garden, but was abandoned years before. “A garden, where we could grow some of our own ingredients, was the next logical progression,” he says.

Baker had the soil tested to see if a garden would even be viable. When the results came back positive, he purchased a state-of-the-art piece of machinery that controls weeds and also waters 19 rows of plants in 30 minutes.

“That first year [2015], I was bound and determined to get the garden project started,” says Baker. “I went to every plant store within 40 miles of the club, purchasing and planting over 600 plants myself.”

With a $3 million culinary operation to run, Baker knew he would need help with the garden. That led him to Jeannine Hopkins, who had worked at Houston Oaks at various points, helping with landscaping and grounds maintenance. Having grown up on a farm and ultimately earning a Master Gardener certification, she was especially qualified to run the garden.

“I’ve worked with a lot of chefs over the years,” says Hopkins. “[Baker] is invested in the success of this garden. He appreciates the foods we produce and finds ways to translate that passion to the plate, which gets the members excited.”

Adds Dale, who spent the bulk of his career as a chef before coming to Houston Oaks about a year ago: “Chef is passionate about the unique things that make the dining experience at Houston Oaks special for our members, like this garden and the ingredients we grow.”

Baker and Hopkins coordinate each season to plant new and different crops, while expanding the ones that have been especially successful. When the garden was officially up and running, the duo started an aviary, which has since blossomed into ten hives, two of which are flow hives. There is also an aquaponic greenhouse on property.

“Collaboration is a wonderful thing,” says Gusella. “Chef is a strong leader, and he has a lot of support from our owners, myself and [Dale].”

Lost in the Sauce

Anything Hopkins harvests in the club’s garden is given to Baker and his team, and the culinary staff then finds ways to use it in a la carte specials.

In fact, when Hopkins enters the kitchen, everyone is expected to stop working and listen to what she has brought for them.

“I want my team to pay attention to the passion she has for the things she grows,” says Baker.

Scraps are composted (the compost goes back to the garden) and any items that don’t find their way onto a member’s plate are processed, preserved or dried for later use.

“We have a wide variety of canned and preserved foods available for our members, including pickles, jams, assorted spices, honey, chow-chow, barbecue sauce, salsa, sundried tomato pesto and basil pesto,” says Baker. He has also made waves with members with his three different varieties of hot sauce that he cooler-ages for a minimum of 45-days and then uses for member dining as well as displays and sells from one of the open kitchens, where a pizza oven invites members to come up close and see what’s offered.

Green Heat, the mildest sauce, features a ratio of two cups peppers to one tablespoon salt. Dab-a-Do Ya, the next hottest, includes ten different red peppers, including red jalapeños and pequin peppers. Double Dog Dare Ya (pictured, above), the hottest of all three, is made from a mash of Carolina Reapers, Naga Viper peppers and Trinidad scorpion peppers.

“It’s so freaking hot,” says Baker, who sells out every time he puts the hot sauces up for sale—an especially impressive feat, given that he makes 15,000 bottles each time.

All proceeds from the sale of his canned and preserved goods go back to the club, too. “I do it for member bragging rights,” Baker says.

And as a result of all of these initiatives—the hot sauce, Bunker 55, the expanding garden, the aquaponic greenhouse and bee farm—as well as the ones not yet underway, Houston Oaks is moving towards a sustainable future.